by Jennifer Oliver
While the factors contributing to IT project failure are many, J. Mack Robinson College of Business Professor of Computer Information Systems Mark Keil discusses key ways to avoid the pitfalls of IT project failure starting with an organization’s management and culture.Every day, organizations are developing information technology systems for their own use and organizational effectiveness. Every day, some of these projects fail. Oftentimes, management and culture, not programming, are the culprit.
Critical to the success of any IT project is management understanding the scope, timeline and budget, and being committed to the success of the project.
Projects should have defined beginnings and end points and concrete goals, as well as a plan for the process of completion. Likewise, good communication among those involved and accurate reporting can set an IT project on the path to success.
“It’s really hard to create the kind of environment, and to maintain that environment, where people feel free to speak up without negative consequences. That’s called a climate of psychological safety,” said Mark Keil. “When projects get off track for any number of reasons, and they will,” Keil shares, “teams can be more effective and organizations can be more effective if there is psychological safety.”
Key Project Pitfalls
There are many reasons why IT projects fail. Keil outlines three key pitfalls.
“Too often systems are developed before the developers fully understand what it is the users for whom the system is intended actually want or need,” says Keil.
There are several reasons why developers may not properly understand the requirements including:
- Developers either don’t have access to the users or if they have access they don’t take full advantage of it
- Project clients are not forthcoming with information and are not engaged
- Users are unwilling to show up at the beginning of the process to provide a decent set of requirements
To reinforce this pitfall, Keil shared an example of a hospital trying to implement a new system for doctors. “Trying to get a doctor to show up to meetings where they can actually provide meaningful input into the process can be difficult, and instead they end up with a system they are not happy with. It becomes a pay me now or pay me later situation.”
The second major pitfall is what Keil calls “scope creep.” “In all projects you have to have some kind of manageable scope. If we don’t separate out the bells and whistles from the must haves, and we keep adding in bells and whistles, we may never deliver the product or it becomes so costly that it fails for that reason. So it’s either late or over budget.”
Thirdly, a lack of top management commitment can derail a project. “Obstacles are going to come up on any project,” says Keil, “and if senior management is not committed to the project and willing to clear those obstacles, then the project could go south.”
Project Reporting Challenges
“Project reporting is a major issue,” says Keil. There are two ways in which reporting can go wrong – when people report project status that is more optimistic than reality, putting a positive spin on the status and when people are too pessimistic and put a negative spin on the status. Keil says, “This is sometimes referred to as Chicken Little reporting – the sky is falling all the time, whether the sky is really falling or not.”
“The research we have done suggests that both kinds of biased reporting occur, but people are more apt to engage in optimistic biasing than pessimistic biasing,” Keil continues. “The problem is that if optimistic reporting occurs, the higher ups in the organization are going to have a rosier picture in their mind of the project progress than is actually the case. That creates all kinds of issues because now they are going to be surprised when they learn the project is over budget or over schedule.”
Keil’s research suggests that project success may lie in the hands of the pessimists. More accurate progress reporting occurs when the team is full of pessimists that give a slightly negative bias to the reporting and “that’s because the negative bias tends to offset the tendency that people have to perceive their project as being in better shape than it really is,” says Keil.
“What’s interesting to me is how you create an organization structure and culture that encourages accurate reporting,” says Keil. “The auditing approach would say that people are going to be dishonest. They are going to look for reasons to misrepresent the true status of the project so we have to audit the heck out of our projects.”
However, the audit approach can actually have an adverse effect whereby the people who are being audited, rather than being more forthcoming, actually engage in more deception. “So you get into this vicious cycle that we’ve written about in some of our research where you think you are doing the right thing by increasing audit scrutiny, but it actually backfires,” said Keil.
Want to see your IT project succeed? Start with management support and a culture of psychological safety, or risk seeing your IT projects fail.